got this idea over a decade ago from a Japanese friend of mine. I'm
sure it's been done before in the U.S., but I haven't seen it in my
(admittedly limited) personal library of books about writing with
friend told me about a story she'd written when she was a little
girl, and it went through the alphabet, starting with a king
(Aiue-Oosama, or King Aiue. The first five letters of the Japanese
alphabet are A, I, U, E, and O). It was very clever, and I've always
wanted to try something like it.
is probably better for upper elementary kids and older. It can be a
quick writing prompt or it could become a more finished piece, like a book:
a story or a paragraph about anything, in which every sentence starts
with a letter of the alphabet, starting with A and working your way
through to Z.
gave Tai the prompt and said I'd do it too. Tai sat and happily wrote
twenty-six sentences—more than he's ever done in one sitting in his
life. I could hardly believe it. It might be the longest thing he's
think this worked because it helped him to focus on just one sentence
at a time (bird by bird, as it were), instead of a whole idea. The
letter challenge gave him an excuse to be less than perfect, and move
on. That is, he didn't get bogged down trying to convey his very
abstract thinking or create a complex narrative; all he had to do to
meet the challenge was think of a sentence that started with the
appropriate letter and that sort of worked with his theme.
possible reason: Of course, he wanted to see what I wrote right away,
and compare. My own sentences weren't great, and they were silly. I'm
sure he thought, “I can do better than that,” which always
turns. One person writes a sentence for one letter, the next person
writes a sentence for the next letter, etc.
the idea of a narrative frame or a paragraph; just make a list of
keep the frame and simply require one word somewhere in the sentence
to start with the alphabet letter.
Just make a list of words. Or if you're working with grammar, a list of verbs. Or adjectives. Or proper nouns. I did it with adjectives once, because Tai could not remember what they were and how they worked. Thinking of twenty-six helped him.
Revising and adding illustrations could make this into a fun book.
think there must be lots of other ways to play with this
idea—elaborate or simplify as you please.
In all the alphabets yet created there lies a wealth, an abundance, of possible creative interpretations which we only perceive as we give them more intensive study. The letter was formed, and to form implies creation. This is a divine process, even when it takes place with the four walls of a humble workshop . . .
--Alfred J. Ludwig
Each letter of the Roman/European alphabet does seem to have its own character. The quotation above reminds me of a passage from The Phantom Tollbooth. Milo is walking through the marketplace in Dictionopolis and spies a vendor selling individual letters:
"Here, taste an A; they're very good."
Milo nibbled carefully at the letter and discovered that it was quite sweet and delicious--just the way you'd expect an A to taste.
"I knew you'd like it," laughed the letter man, popping two G's and an R into his mouth and letting the juice drip down his chin. "A's are one of our most popular letters. All of them aren't that good," he confided in a low voice. "Take the Z, for instance--very dry and sawdusty. And the X? Why, it tastes like a trunkful of stale air. That's why people hardly ever use them. But most of the others are quite tasty. Try some more."
He gave Milo an I, which was icy and refreshing, and Tock a crisp, crunchy C.
Nature writing has a long, proud tradition in America. Think Lewis and Clark, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Annie Dillard, among others. I thought we'd give it a little try. My hope is to send a finished piece to friends and family, and possibly to a nature writing website. As for purpose, there's no practical purpose beyond entertaining the audience and getting outside to observe and write. But that seems to be enough, at least for now.
I wrote a model of a descriptive paragraph about our backyard. There are lots of great models out there in books and magazines (ooh, a travel mag piece would be fun), but I wanted to keep the ideal within reach--too beautiful or complex and my writer would be intimidated.
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the pale blue walls of this room,
bouncing from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past--
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that's what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sickroom,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift--not the archaic truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
Billy Collins is my imaginary boyfriend. I love him. I just can't help it.
I've done this exercise with Tai a
couple of times as a meditiation exercise (also see the end of this post) and as a thinking exercise
(about which more in a later post), both orally, and a couple of
times as a journal entry. The journal exercise went like this: Write down every thing you see. Note
colors, numbers, etc. With some noodging, the results look like this:
I see a
computer in front of me.
I see a brown
I see a
I see a bumpy
I see a white
I see a red
I see a green
tree with long leaves.
I see a chair
to the left of me.
I see a 4 by 4
I see a
leather chair with cat scratch marks.
I see a
placemat with the alphabet on it.
I see a door.
A white door.
I see 4 tomato
What I Did
Today I tried
again, this time calling it unimaginitively “description practice”.
I was going to find a photograph for him to describe, but we've been
doing so much with the photos. I wanted something “in real life,”
as Kenzo likes to say. So I picked this vase of roses:
If at First
You Don't Succeed, or Before Writing
practice, I said. We'll talk about it first. Tell me what you
see—every detail. He was not happy about this, and heaving a grumpy
sigh, he said, “They're white.”
“Yes, of course. Duh.”
Not a good
He could not
or would not do better than “white.” I bit my tongue and didn't
push it (slowly getting better at this). “Okay. What else?”
Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.
Early last month, even at age 10, Tai
was still unclear about what constituted a grammatical sentence.
Mostly he writes in complete sentences anyway, but he could not tell
the difference between sentence and a not-sentence—in fact, when
asked specifically to write a sentence, sometimes he would write
things that weren't sentences: “The ball bouncing.” or “Running
down the road.”
Unschooling advocates would say, well,
he speaks in sentences, doesn't he? He writes intelligible sentences,
doesn't he? As long as he has an intuitive grasp of the deep
structure, he's fine. Don't mess him up with technicalities unless he
asks for them.
And I get that. But he was (and still
is) writing longer and longer sentences and not putting commas
anywhere which made them difficult to follow even though the word
order and everything made sense and apart from the lack of commas
they were grammatically correct. And, when I asked him to put commas
where the breaks were he didn't always find the right places because,
sometimes, when you talk you do pause after the conjunction,
and not between clauses.
He reads a lot; the books he reads are
punctuated correctly. So maybe with enough reading, he will be able
to figure it out for himself. But I have a feeling that it doesn't
work this way for everyone. My husband reads a lot. A lot. And
he still uses comma splices, he just can't help it. It drives me
crazy. Clearly it hasn't held him back in his career, but I just feel
like you get more respect, rightly or wrongly, if you can write good
sentences. And for a verbal kid like Tai, I see a future that will
rely heavily on using language. Maybe I'm wrong. But it can't hurt to
see that he understands the basics of sentence structure. I decided
to start with the very basic elements of a sentence: subject and verb
(predicate for you grammar sticklers).
So without further ado:
Finding and Making Skeleton
This is based on a
grammar workshop I attended many years ago at a CATE conference. I
wish I could remember who taught it so I could give her credit here.
1. I prepared some cool photos with
clear subjects—more than one subject worked best. National
Geographic magazine is a great source for photos that inspire.
(Remember cutting them out of old ones donated to the school for
projects and stuff when you were in grade school? I do.) I actually
cut them out and glued them to construction paper, just like in real
school. I don't know why—it just seemed less...arbitrary.
2. Together, we identified the
subject(s) of the photos. No wrong answer here—any noun that
appeared in the photo was okay, really. We wrote the word(s) on
pieces of paper, including any articles (the, an, a). We talked
about how the subject of a photo is what the photo is “about”—just
like the subject of a sentence is what the sentence is about.